SARS fears high on the business agenda

May 23 2003 by Brian Amble Print This Article

SARS continues to dominate corporate agendas and significantly disrupt business activity according to a survey of more than 260 companies carried out by Mercer HR Consulting

Globally, 20 per cent of companies say SARS is high on the business agenda, with the figure rising to 70 per cent in Asia,.

Business travel and face-to-face business meetings continue to be the biggest casualties of the disease. More than three-quarters (79 per cent) of companies have restricted travel and 62 per cent have stopped holding regular meetings.

Responses to SARS vary. More than four out of ten companies have now encourage staff to work from home and half provide employees with masks. Nearly half also say that they screen staff and visitors, while 43 per cent now insist that staff who may have been exposed to SARS are quarantined.

But despite the scale of the disruption, nearly seven out of ten businesses are confident that SARS will "cease to be an issue" within three months. One in five, however, believe that the impact will last longer.

"Now the initial panic is over, employers are taking more measured actions, but the mood is still cautious," said Hugh Bucknall, Worldwide Partner at Mercer. "Companies have had to rethink their work procedures and be far more flexible."

The SARS crisis has hit expatriate staff particularly hard, especially in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and China. Bucknall estimated that 5 per cent of expatriate staff in hard-hit areas have been repatriated, and about 10 per cent of temporary visitors have gone home.

"Segregation of some teams has happened in 20 to 25 per cent of companies with a few key staff being relocated offshore. For example, a money market dealer was relocated from HK to Sydney for a few weeks," he said.

In April, the US trade group the Air Transport Association found that SARS had led to a 25 per cent fall in business travel from the USA to the Pacific. The survey of 144 large companies found that more than half had banned all travel to Asia, almost all saying that the restriction would be in place "until further notice". Only 7 per cent of corporations were taking no action.